Will This Venue Work?

consultant’s study says yes, Confluence Project will boost economy by $4.5M

Tom Giffey

VISION OF THE FUTURE? The $88 million Confluence Project still exists only on paper, but backers hope a new report helps change that.
VISION OF THE FUTURE? The $88 million Confluence Project still exists only on paper, but backers hope a new report helps change that.

The downtown Eau Claire performing arts center proposed as part of the Confluence Project will directly create an estimated $4.5 million in economic activity in its first year, according to a consultant’s study released May 15.

The long-awaited study, by Ames, Iowa-based VenuWorks, also estimates that the arts center will end its first year of operation $100,000 in the black after putting another $100,000 in reserve. By the fifth year, revenues are expected to exceed expenses by $162,000, for a cumulative $670,000 in excess revenues.

“The development of the center in the heart of downtown Eau Claire should provide a catalyst for new businesses to locate there and afford current businesses the opportunity to add staff to meet the increased flow of customers.” – VenuWorks report on the performing arts center proposed as part of the Confluence Project

Backers of the project hope that details like that help allay fears that taxpayers will be left on the hook to fund the public-private facility’s operational costs.

“It does show that it is a sustainable entity,” Eau Claire Regional Arts Center Executive Director Ben Richgruber said at a press conference held to introduce the 117-page report.

The study estimates that 176,400 people will patronize the arts center in its first year when the facility will host an estimated 181 events (and 646 “event days,” a figure that includes rehearsals and events that last multiple days).

“The development of the arts center will provide a state-of-the-art venue for local, regional and national events to be presented,” the report states. “Long term, the development of the center in the heart of downtown Eau Claire should provide a catalyst for new businesses to locate there and afford current businesses the opportunity to add staff to meet the increased flow of customers.”

The entire $88 million Confluence Project, announced in May 2012, includes plans for a performing arts center to be used by both the community and UW-Eau Claire; a mixed-use building including a privately funded 300-bed student apartment complex and retail/commercial space; as well as underground parking and a public plaza at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers.

The study was commissioned by two of the project’s partners, the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center Council (ECRAC) and Haymarket Concepts (a partnership among Commonweal Development, Market & Johnson, and Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation). The document includes a market analysis, budget recommendations, and studies of facility size, staffing, programming, and governance.

Considering a number of public and private entities are involved, creating a governance structure for the facility has been complicated. In particular, fulfilling the state’s legal and constitutional requirements for overseeing its share of the facility has been difficult and is the main reason that release of the VenuWorks report was delayed for months as various governing models were proposed and scrapped.

“The uniqueness of the project is in fact its collaboration,” said Dan Clumpner, a partner in Commonweal Development. “That sets it apart from most other performing arts venues. It’s the concept of having two separate entities with common vision sharing programming and costs associated with a facility that makes this an exceptional and unique project. The challenge is there is no model … that has these kinds of circumstances.”

The report recommends that a board of control, the Confluence Council, should be created to represent the various stakeholders. That council, in turn, should hire a professional management company to oversee the arts center’s finances and operations, the report recommends.

“That has to be somebody that can be fired,” Clumpner said of the future facility’s management. “That has to be somebody who in fact can be held accountable.”

“A creative partnership has been envisioned for the arts center combining the strengths of two vibrant organizations, UW-Eau Claire and ECRAC.”

According to the partners’ proposal, the 150,000-square-foot arts center’s ownership would be based on a condominium model, with the state (via UW-Eau Claire) owning 54,000 square feet and a local nonprofit (to be a subsidiary of ECRAC) owning 10,000 square feet. An estimated 5,000 square feet would be leased by Visit Eau Claire, a tourism-promotion group, leaving 81,000 square feet – including performance spaces, the gallery lobbies, and public areas – to be jointly owned by the condominium association. In addition to sharing space, ECRAC and the state would split the arts center’s $50 million price tag, with half coming via the UW System and the other half from a mix of funds from local governments, new market tax credits, and donors. (At the May 13 Eau Claire City Council meeting, Kimera Way, executive director of the UWEC Foundation, said her organization has received conditional commitments of $3.5 million toward its $10 million to $12 million goal.)

Because they are part of the ownership group, UW-Eau Claire and ECRAC would have priority in scheduling events at the arts center, which would include a variety of spaces: a 1,200 to 1,500 seat theater to replace ECRAC’s State Theatre; a 450-seat theater to replace UWEC’s Kjer Theatre; a 250-seat “black box” style theater; scene and costume shops; dressing rooms and other “back of house” space; fine art studios, gallery space, and dance studio space; classrooms and rehearsal rooms; and offices for ECRAC, community arts groups, and some university faculty.

“A creative partnership has been envisioned for the arts center combining the strengths of two vibrant organizations, UW-Eau Claire and ECRAC,” the report states. “Through this synergy new events will evolve, current clients will have the opportunity to experience growth in their programs and community members will be drawn to the center for a wide variety of activity.”

It’s the cultural and economic value of that activity that the Confluence Project’s partners hope convinces members of the Eau Claire City Council and Eau Claire County Board to commit tax dollars to building the arts center.

“If we invigorate the downtown, it helps the whole region,” Commonweal partner Stuart Schaefer said after the press conference.

To read the full VenuWorks report about the Confluence Project, go to www.eauclairearts.org/confluence. There you can also submit questions about the report to the project’s partners, who will respond electronically in the coming days and weeks.